Discover the history of horror films, from ancient ghost stories to modern terrors. Whether you're a fan of jump scares or prefer more psychologically-driven thrillers, you'll uncover the chilling roots of this spine-tingling genre.
Happy Spooky Season!
But what can I say!? It's the one time of year when it's socially acceptable to be a little weird and appreciate the slightly off-kilter things in life. I also enjoy film history, so I thought this would be the perfect time for another blog installment of "History of..."* However, before delving into the history of horror films, we first have to take a look at their primary inspiration.
Things that Go Bump in the Night: Horror's Origin Story
Throughout the history of man, we've used storytelling to entertain, educate, and explain the unknown. Every civilization has passed down oral histories to explain everything from weather phenomena to the creation of landmasses, etc. However, the most popular campfire stories were about the dark and mysterious. According to historians, the earliest examples of "ghost stories" can be traced to the ancient Romans. The earliest known recorded account comes from author and statesman Pliny the Younger. Pliny described in his letters the specter of an old man with a long beard and rattling chains, haunting his house in Athens.
Scholars believe that these recounted "visitations" from the recently deceased were used to instill respect for the dead, almost like a ghost story fable. The tradition of ghost stories also helps to explain the different death rites and funeral rituals from different cultures and societies. Many believe that a person's spirit exists independently from the body and exists even after death. Funeral rituals or ceremonies are a way of ensuring that the dead person's spirit would not return to "haunt" the living. Despite attempts to rationalize our greatest mystery—death—the ghost stories themselves became darker and more wicked. Oral histories inspired folklore which in turn inspired urban legends.
However, horror as entertainment in the West was popularized in the late 18th century with the surge in gothic fiction. Gothic literature, and later, film, is associated with the mystery and intrigue surrounding the supernatural and the unexplained. During this period, novels like Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) were equally terrifying and engaging readers.
Bringing Horror to the Silver Screen
At the turn of the 20th century, new technology was enthralling audiences: motion pictures. The first known horror film (which was rediscovered in 1988 at the New Zealand Film Archive) is Georges Méliès' The House of the Devil [Le Manoir du diable] (1896). While the film is more fantastical than fearful—at least to modern audiences—film scholars consider it a horror film because of its themes and gothic characters. The silent film tells the story of an encounter with the Devil and various attendant phantoms, complete with cauldrons, animated skeletons, ghosts, and transforming bats.
French film pioneer Georges Méliès' The House of the Devil [Le Manoir du diable] (1896).
With the rising popularity of this modern marvel, filmmakers turned to popular literature to adapt to film. From the early 1900s to the mid-1920s, popular gothic classics-turn-films included Selig Polyscope Company's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908), Edison Studios' Frankenstein (1910), and Bison Film Company's The Werewolf (1913); unfortunately, only Frankenstein survived the era.
Gilded Fangs: The Golden Age of Horror
Just as Hollywood had its own "Golden Age" from the 1920s to the 1960s, the horror genre had its own moment to shine. From the 1920s to the 1930s, film studios pumped out horror films at a surprising rate. Classics like Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) solidified horror filmmaking as its own distinct genre. It became common practice for studios to market these films as "horror" instead of "gothic melodramas."
Thanks to the addition of sound in the mid-to-late 1920s, filmmakers could create a creepy atmosphere for audiences: ghostly, ethereal music, jarring sound effects, and a damsel in distress' screams completed the immersive experience. Advances in technology in the 1930s also saw the rise in "monster movies," including the first color adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) directed by Rouben Mamoulian, James Whale's Frankenstein (1931), and Karl Freund's The Mummy (1932).
Henry Jekyll's transformation into Hyde from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), directed by Rouben Mamoulian and performed by Fredric March. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, with March winning the award for Best Actor, which he shared with Wallace Beery for The Champ.
The genre's growing popularity also created its own stars, such as Lon Chaney (of The Phantom of the Opera fame), Bela Lugosi (of Dracula fame), Boris Karloff (of Frankenstein fame), and Lon Chaney Jr. (of The Wolf Man fame). Lugosi was arguably the first to specialize solely in the genre.
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster in Frankenstein (1931), Lon Chaney as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Bela Lugosi as Dracula in Dracula (1931), and Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry Talbot/Wolf Man in The Wolf Man (1941).
Universal's Monster Madness
I would be remiss in not acknowledging Universal Studios' influence on the genre. By the end of the 1930s, Universal Studios had established itself as the premiere horror studio based on its legacy of monster films, including Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Wolf Man (1941), and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and their resulting franchises.
However, one of the most heartbreaking stories from Universal's Monster Madness era is the fate of artist and special effects designer Milicent Patrick, one of the first women in the industry. I'd highly recommend Mallory O'Meara's book The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick if you're interested in learning more about this incredible woman.
From the 1960s to 1970s, Universal aggressively pushed its monster lineup onto consumers through merchandising, including Halloween costumes, Aurora model kits, paperback novelizations, makeup how-to manuals, T-shirt patches, posters, and trading cards. In 1990, Universal Studios Florida produced the live Universal's Horror Make-Up Show, featuring characters from the Universal Classic Monsters franchise. In 1991, Universal Parks & Resorts started its annual Halloween Horror Nights event; they feature characters from the Universal Classic Monsters franchise.
In the late 1990s, Universal Studios attempted to reboot several of its classic franchises with varying success, including Stephen Sommers' The Mummy (1999), Sommers' Van Helsing (2004), Joe Johnston's The Wolfman (2010), Gary Shore's Dracula Untold (2014), and Alex Kurtzman's The Mummy (2017).
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS' MONSTER MASH REBOOTS: Hugh Jackman in Van Helsing (2004), Benicio del Toro in The Wolfman (2010), Luke Evans in Dracula Untold (2014), John Hannah, Rachel Weisz, and Brendan Fraiser in The Mummy (1999), and Sofia Boutella in The Mummy (2017).
Gimmicky Jumpscares vs. Sophisticated Thrillers
From the 1950s onward, the genre began to struggle. It splintered into two distinct categories: cheap, campy thrills and psychologically-driven thrillers.
During the atomic race following World War II, the threats of everything from nuclear fallout to the Soviet "red scare" were palpable and reflected on the big screen. Films like Ishirō Honda's Godzilla (1954), Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and Irvin Yeaworth and Russell Doughten's The Blob (1958) capitalized on these fears.
Do you know Haruo Nakajima, the man underneath the Godzilla suit?
To up the fear factor, studios tried 3D glasses, electric buzzers installed into theater seats, and hiring actors planted among audiences to scream and pretend to faint. These scare tactics didn't last long past the 1960s due to their high costs, but studios tried just about everything to keep the scares going. American audiences didn't need the extra theatrics, however. The appetite for horror, especially among teens with expendable income, was so strong, studios were able to produce slashers for under $1 million and spawn dozens of B-movie sequels and crossovers.
On the other end of the spectrum, filmmakers like Mario Bava, Terence Fisher, Nobuo Nakagawa, Alfred Hitchcock, and Kim Ki-young brought a level of sophistication to the genre, all releasing incredibly unique and fresh horror films contrary to the conventional "Monster Mash" in 1960. Unlike the cheap jumpscares from popular B-movies, their psychologically-driven films were a slow burn, building suspense.
Five masters of horror all released films in 1960: Mario Bava's Black Sunday, Terence Fisher's Brides of Dracula, Nobu Nakagawa's Jigoku [The Sinners of Hell], Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid.
The Rise of Mysticism & Slashers
From the 1970s to the 1980s, supernatural horror, particularly horror focused on the occult, grew popular. For some reason, these two decades were dominated by stories about creepy houses and demonically-possessed children. Particularly, William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), Richard Donner's The Omen (1976), and Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982), spawning franchises of their own.
Similar to the early 1900s to the 1930s, filmmakers were often turning to literature for adaptations. However, directors and screenwriters checked the contemporary best sellers list instead of looking to the past. Authors like Clive Barker, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Ray Bradbury's works with supernatural overtones were adapted for the screen throughout the two decades. Examples include Barker's Hellraiser (1987); King's Carrie (1976), The Shining (1980), and Pet Semetary (1989); Koontz's Demon Seed (1977); and Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) and The Ray Bradbury Theater (1985-1992).
While many horror fans may consider this a "fun fact," director Stanley Kubrick made actors Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson shoot the infamous "bat scene" from The Shining (1980) a record-setting 127 times. In the final version used in the film, Duvall was emotionally and physically exhausted; she was dehydrated, her voice had gone hoarse from hours of screaming, and her hands were raw from gripping the bat so tightly. The experience was so traumatic, Duvall developed severe anxiety and PTSD and nearly quit acting.
As the draw of the occult started to wane, a new fear came into focus: the slasher film. Arguably, the first modern slasher film was Tobe Hooper's Chainsaw Massacre (1974), with the iconic character Leatherface loosely inspired by serial murderer Ed Gein. Still, it wasn't until the 1980s that the subgenre really took off. Other popular titles include John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980), and Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), all of which produced more sequels.
Actress Jamie Lee Curtis has played the character Laurie Strode in nine of the thirteen Halloween franchise films, appearing in at least one Halloween film every decade since 1978. Film scholars widely cite Laurie as one of the earliest and most influential examples of the "final girl" slasher film archetype. The term "final girl" was coined by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992).
Upping the Ante: Leaving the Audience Wanting More
As they say, all good things must come to an end. In the case of horror, Hollywood beat it senseless until nothing was really scary (or fun) anymore. In its attempts to keep pace with horror productions as it had in the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood encountered a new problem: cynical audiences. Moviegoers were weary of CGI-heavy creature feature bombs like Anaconda (1997), Deep Rising (1998), and Deep Blue Sea (1999) and tired of sequels of their favorite fright fests like The Exorcist III (1990), Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995), and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1995).
The genre struggled to land significant hits in the 1990s and early 2000s, with few exceptions like Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Peter Jackson's Braindead (1992), Wes Craven's Scream (1996), and Paul W. S. Anderson's video game adaptation of Resident Evil (2002). Resident Evil's popularity inspired a resurgence of the caliber of zombie movies greats like George A. Romero had established back in the 1960s with films like Night of the Living Dead (1968). Soon, theaters were inundated with movies like Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002), Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead (2004), Romero's Land of the Dead (2005), Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend (2007), Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland (2009), and Yeon Sang-ho's Train to Busan (2016).
ZOMBIE EVOLUTION: Zombie popularity had waned since George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) until the Resident Evil video game was released in 1996. It was quickly adapted for film in 2002, launching a franchise of its own. Zombie flicks continued to be popular throughout the 2000s and 2010s, with films like I Am Legend (2007) and Train to Busan (2016).
The Future of Spooks and Shocks
To combat the slasher slump of the 1990s and early 2000s, a new generation of filmmakers forced a significant shift in storytelling dynamics in Hollywood into the 2010s. Specifically, a shift in who is telling the story. More women and POC filmmakers have made their mark on the genre, including Ana Lily Amirpour, Nia DaCosta, Guillermo Del Toro, Rose Glass, Jennifer Kent, Karyn Kusama, Andy Muschietti, Jordan Peele, and James Wan, bringing fresh perspectives to the genre. Their films challenge traditional norms and push the boundaries of supernatural horror, explored deep-seated fears, and societal taboos, and sparked vital conversations within the genre. The representation of diverse perspectives has led to greater storytelling with innovative ideas, something desperately needed in this genre.
If you're a horror fan, you can look forward to exploring new, innovative storytelling techniques that promise to keep you on the edge of your seat. Whether you're a seasoned horror enthusiast or new to the genre, there's something for everyone in this new wave of horror cinema.
Karyn Kusama on the set of Jennifer's Body (2009), Rose Glass on the set of Saint Maude (2019), Jennifer Kent and Aisling Franciosi on the set of The Nightingale (2018), Nia DaCosta and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on the set of Candyman (2021), James Wan and Vera Farmiga on the set of The Conjuring (2013), Guillermo Del Toro and Mia Wasikowska on the set of Crimson Peak (2015), and Jordan Peele and Daniel Kaluuya on the set of Nope (2022).
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*Please note, I am not an expert, just a film and history nerd. This is in no way a comprehensive review of horror as a genre. There are tons of films and filmmakers associated with this genre, and I would encourage you to learn more about it if you're interested.